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A time for change? Indigenous heritage values and management practice in the Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes region, South Australia.

Abstract: The Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes in South Australia have long been recognised under the Ramsar Convention for their natural heritage values. Less well known is the fact that this area also has high social and cultural values, encompassing the traditional lands and waters (ruwe) of the Ngarrindjeri Nation. This unique ecosystem is currently teetering on the verge of collapse, a situation arguably brought about by prolonged drought after decades of unsustainable management practices. While at the federal level there have been moves to better integrate typically disparate 'cultural' and 'natural' heritage management regimes--thereby supporting Indigenous groups in their attempts to gain a greater voice in how their traditional country is managed--the distance has not yet been bridged in the Coorong. Here, current management planning continues to emphasise natural heritage values, with limited practical integration of cultural values or Ngarrindjeri viewpoints. As the future of the Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes is being debated, we suggest decision makers would do well to look to the Ngarrindjeri for guidance on the integration of natural and cultural values in management regimes as a vital step towards securing the long-term ecological viability of this iconic part of Australia.


For the last 65 years we have witnessed the decline in the health, wildlife and other resources of the lakes and river, made worse by the deliberate introduction of exotic species ... and destructive farming practices ... As a result of this destructive land management, the Coorong, for thousands of years a major focus of our culture and economy, began to deteriorate and is rapidly dying today (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:15). In Australia the closing decades of the twentieth century saw a number of fundamental changes relating to land rights, commencing with Indigenous Australians being included in the census as citizens (1967), followed by the enactment of an array of national and state land rights and cultural heritage protection legislation, and culminating in the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth), which provides for recognition of the pre-existing rights of Indigenous peoples to lands and waters. The international legal arena concurrently experienced the evolution of norms in regards to the nondiscrimination of people on the basis of 'race' and the right to self-determination (Sutherland and Muir 2001). Such developments have contributed to the blurring of the nature-culture divide in the entangled fields of heritage and natural resource management, resulting in the recent emergence of more closely aligned management strategies designed to achieve sustainable use of the environment for the benefit of future generations (Johnston, C 2006). This approach is much more akin to traditional Indigenous models of land management, where strong attachments to country translate into ethics of care and custodianship (cf. Rose 1996). Such paradigm shifts have had important ramifications for Indigenous peoples' assertions of their ownership and rights over country, and the roles they can play, and are playing, in environmental management (Berkes 2008, 2009; Borrini-Feyerabend, Kotharia and Oviedo 2004; Veitayaki 1997). The ultimate outcome will hopefully be the emergence of cohesive management strategies recognising and protecting heritage values in a sustainable, integrated fashion (Johnston, C 2006). However, the idea that traditional Indigenous knowledge and traditional owners are critical to such management strategies is only slowly gaining currency in Australia (Brown et al. 2006; Corbett, Lane and Clifford 1998; Lawrence 1996; Young et al. 1991). Of an estimated 6000 protected marine and terrestrial areas in Australia, not even 0.5% were under formal joint management arrangements at the start of the new century (Baker, Davies and Young 2001:12; Muller 2003). Even when management does engage Indigenous communities, it is still the case that there is often a trade-off between the rights and interests of Traditional Owners and those of government conservation agencies, causing further alienation (Smyth 2001). This is especially the case with regard to water resources, despite growing awareness of the cultural significance of water and the 'connectivity' between people, environment and water (see Behrendt and Thompson 2004; Langton 2002; Weir 2008).


The Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes (C&LML) region of South Australia (Figure 1) is listed as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance (Ramsar Convention Secretariat 2006), and has recently been at the forefront of public consciousness owing to its extremely poor environmental condition. Prolonged drought and inadequate management policies and practices over the past 60 years have resulted in dangerously low water levels associated with high salinity levels in the system, which threaten to cause ecological collapse (Eccleston 2008; MDBA 2008, 2009a).

The C&LML are situated within the traditional lands and waters (ruwe) of the Ngarrindjeri Nation, where many traditional activities including fishing, weaving, governance and language are still practiced, reflecting a strong, vibrant and, importantly, ongoing culture (Bell 1998; Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006). Under Ngarrindjeri tradition, lands and waters, plants and animals, places and people are interwoven; one cannot exist without the other, and thus effective management requires all components of the system to be considered with respect to their relationship to the whole:

The land and waters is a living body. We the Ngarrindjeri people are a part of its existence. The land and waters must be healthy for the Ngarrindjeri to be healthy. We say that if Yarluwar-Ruwe [Sea Country] dies, the waters die, our Ngartjis [totems] die, then the Ngarrindjeri will surely die (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:13).

In the first part of this paper we consider aspects of the federal heritage management regime, focusing on certain World Heritage-listed places within Australia that have been recognised at least in part for their (Indigenous) 'cultural' values in conjunction with their 'natural' values (UNESCO World Heritage Centre 2008). We review some of the specific strategies at these places designed to ensure ongoing Indigenous involvement and/or control in their management. In the second part of this paper we broaden the focus to consider the implications of recent definitional shifts in environmental planning to incorporate cultural heritage, with regards to the sometimes-problematic juxtaposition of the World Heritage and Ramsar conventions. Our discussion is framed within the parameters of the Ngarrindjeri Nation and the C&LML case study. While the natural values of this area are internationally recognised and protected under the Ramsar Convention through the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth) (hereafter EPBC Act), the C&LML's considerable Indigenous cultural and social values are currently only minimally considered in the area's management and planning processes. We argue that, as has already occurred elsewhere in Australia (cf. McNiven and Russell 1995), (1) Indigenous values of the lands and waters associated with the C&LML need to be more seriously considered if natural and cultural values are to be genuinely protected within a unified environmental management regime, and (2) stronger attempts should be made to meaningfully integrate Ngarrindjeri people, knowledge and values in contemporary environmental management and decision-making processes at all levels (cf. MDBA 2009b).

Federal statutory context for integrating natural and cultural heritage protection frameworks

In 1974 Australia became one of the first nation states to ratify the 1972 World Heritage Convention, and the only state to enact specific legislation in order to meet its responsibilities under the Convention. As at April 2010, Australia has 17 sites inscribed on the World Heritage List (hereafter WHL), which, with two exceptions, were all recognised for their natural heritage values. This pattern follows a similar trend to other settler nations such as Canada and the United States of America, where cultural sites are rarely nominated to the WHL (Aplin 2002:169) but is at odds with the overall international trend (exemplified in Europe) to primarily recognise properties for their cultural (read 'built heritage') values. Only four of the Australian World Heritage properties listed are recognised for their (Indigenous) cultural values, all of which are probably more accurately (if not actually) described under the newer designation of 'cultural landscapes': the Tasmanian Wilderness, Willandra Lakes Region, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and Kakadu National Park. As is apparent by perusal of the WHL, this level of 'mixed properties' within a nation state is quite rare, and reflects 'the intimate connection that exists between Australia's Indigenous peoples and their environments' (Aplin 2002:190).

Australia is also a Contracting Party to the Ramsar Convention, another international intergovernmental agreement, albeit with a more restricted focus, which provides specifically for the conservation and judicious use of wetlands. This situation illustrates the shifting perceptions of wetlands in recent decades, from unproductive 'wastelands' or 'swamps' to critically important ecological zones that need to be sustainably managed. There are currently 159 Contracting Parties to the Ramsar Convention (with Australia again being one of the first signatory nations), with 65 Australian wetland sites currently on the Ramsar List.

The EPBC Act provides the framework for environmental management at the federal level in Australia. Initially developed solely for natural heritage protection purposes, amendments to the EPBC Act in 2003 saw cultural heritage places, at both the world and national level, join natural heritage as an issue of national environmental significance. Among the changes were many designed to specifically promote co-operative management, particularly with regards to the involvement of Indigenous people, thereby bringing the Act more in line with Recommendation 6.3 of the Ramsar Convention (which requires the meaningful participation of Indigenous people in decision-making processes) and the Operational Guidelines of the World Heritage Convention. There have also been recent shifts in recognition of Indigenous rights and responsibilities to country.

There are various models for how such goals might be achieved, but in practice the provisions for Indigenous involvement in Ramsar site management are usually much more limited than for WHL places, particularly those for which cultural values were specifically highlighted as contributing to their environmental significance. The responsibility for the day-to-day management of WHL places typically rests with state-based management agencies, usually directed by Boards of Management with majority Indigenous representation. In the section to follow, we provide a concise explanation of the management arrangements in four WHL places with both strong cultural and natural heritage values in order to demonstrate how the challenge of improving Indigenous engagement is being addressed in Australian states beyond South Australia.

Kakadu National Park and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Kakadu National Park is situated approximately 200 kilometres east of Darwin in the Northern Territory and covers about 1.98 million hectares. It was first inscribed on the WHL in 1981, and extended in both 1987 and 1992, being one of the first places on the list to be recognised as a 'mixed property' (i.e. having both cultural and natural values of world significance). Kakadu contains extensive rock-art complexes and some of the oldest known archaeological sites in Australia (e.g. Allen and Barton 1989; Brockwell 1989; Gillespie 1983; Jones 1985; Kakadu Board of Management and Parks Australia 1998; Roberts, Jones and Smith 1990; Tacon and Brockwell 1995). Kakadu also contains a number of major river systems and extensive freshwater wetlands, as well as estuarine environments that collectively support approximately one-third of Australia's bird fauna, and is recognised under the Ramsar Convention (Press et al. 1995; Woodroffe, Thom and Chappell 1985). The presence of uranium ore bodies in the Kakadu region has made natural and cultural heritage management particularly contentious.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (formerly Ayers Rock) is located in Central Australia and covers approximately 1300 square kilometres. It was first inscribed on the WHL for its natural values in 1987 and then in 1994 for its cultural values as an outstanding example of the hunting and gathering lifestyle, as well as a continuing cultural landscape of the Anangu peoples (Layton 1986).

Both Uluru and Kakadu have a similar management model in place, aiming for conservation of biodiversity while maintaining cultural values (De Lacy and Lawson 1997). Ownership rests with the Indigenous communities, who lease the parks back to the Federal Government, and each has a Board of Management with majority Indigenous representation and statutorily required Plans of Management that set out the policy framework for joint management (Kakadu Board of Management and Parks Australia 1998; Uluru-Kata Tjuta Board of Management and Parks Australia 2000). While the 'Uluru-Kata Tjuta model' promotes the recognition of territorial rights and legalisation of Indigenous land rights along with self-determination, the transfer of ownership back to the Indigenous community is conditional on their continued support; it is arguably 'therefore an arrangement of convenience or coercion, rather than a partnership freely entered into' (Smyth 2001:76). Nevertheless, Indigenous people live in the parks, run commercial enterprises there, have access rights that are substantially different to those of non-Indigenous users, and also work in various other capacities in operational park management.

Willandra Lakes Region

The Willandra Lakes Region is situated in the rangelands of south-western New South Wales and covers some 240 000 hectares. It was first inscribed on the WHL in 1981 and the boundaries were subsequently modified in 1995. It is recognised as representing major stages of the earth's geological history, containing a system of lakes formed over the past two million years. Archaeological research has demonstrated an exceptional record of human occupation over tens of thousands of years, as well as Australia's oldest known human burial (e.g. Bowler et al. 1970; Bowler and Thorne 1976; Johnston, H, Clark and White 1998; Thorne et al. 1999; Webb 1989).

Willandra is managed through the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service within the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water, and is directed by a Plan of Management (Department of Environment, Sport and Territories 1996), which establishes The World Heritage Area Elders Committee, with majority representation from the three local Aboriginal groups (the Paakantyi, Mutthi Mutthi and Ngyiampaa). Indigenous involvement, while considerable, is subtly different to that seen in Uluru and Kakadu, with land ownership remaining vested with the government. While numerous park rangers and senior management staff in the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service are Indigenous, and Indigenous parties are included as co-authors on major grant applications, Elders often express frustration at their inability to achieve heritage management aspirations they view as crucial, such as the establishment of a dedicated cultural keeping place and interpretive centre, in a timely fashion.

Tasmanian Wilderness

The Tasmanian Wilderness covers 1.38 million hectares of south-west and the central highlands country of Tasmania. It was first inscribed on the WHL in 1982 for its natural values, and then the area was extended in 1989 (Smith and Banks 1993), in part because of the discovery of archaeological sites dating back to 35 000 years BP, demonstrating human occupation at high southern latitudes through the last ice age (e.g. Cosgrove 1989, 1999; Jones et al. 1988; Kiernan, Jones and Ranson 1983).

The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area Management Plan, with recent amendments, guides management of the area (Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service 1999). Of importance in the revision of the plan was the fact that proclamation of the Aboriginal Lands Act 1995 (Tas.) resulted in three parcels of land within the World Heritage Area being returned to Indigenous ownership. This most recent plan places more emphasis on cultural values and the idea of 'management partnerships' with local communities (Lehman 2001; Russell and Jambrecina 2002). It establishes a Consultative Committee of 16 appointed persons, of which one is an Indigenous representative in an 'Aboriginal Community' member role. At the day-to-day level the area is managed by the Tasmanian Department of Parks and Wildlife, although there has recently been some tension between the Department and the Tasmanian Indigenous community over how best to manage the area (Lehman 2001:312).

Wet Tropics of Queensland

The Wet Tropics of Queensland comprise 900 000 hectares of tropical rainforest and associated vegetation along the far north Queensland coast and hinterland. The site was nominated to the WHL under natural heritage criteria, a situation regarded by Indigenous community members as 'a matter of considerable dismay and continuing controversy' (Reser and Bentreupperbaumer 2005:136). Despite the nomination criteria, all three key management documents relating to the Wet Tropics (the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area Regional Agreement (WTMA 2005), the Wet Tropics Aboriginal Cultural and Natural Resource Management Plan (CRC for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management 2005) and the Regional Natural Resources Management Plan 2004-2008 (CRC for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management 2004)) acknowledge the need to record and apply Aboriginal cultural heritage values in the area's management, since, from the Rainforest Aboriginal perspective, 'natural and cultural values are inseparable' (WTMA 2005:4).

The Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) is responsible for overall management of the area, with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service responsible for parks within it, subject to WTMA policies. A Rainforest Aboriginal Advisory Committee, which represents the 18 Aboriginal tribal groups that have lands in the World Heritage Area, advises the WTMA. However, while the Wet Tropics World Heritage Protection and Management Act 1993 (Qld) and Nature Conservation Act 1993 (Qld) allow for potentially flexible co-operative management agreements and the existence of the Rainforest Aboriginal Advisory Committee, government management agencies are not seen as having met their responsibilities under the legislation in terms of either involving Aboriginal peoples in joint management or protecting the cultural values of the region (Hill 2006:578; Lane 1997; WTMA Steering Committee 1998). Of direct relevance to Indigenous involvement in management of the Wet Tropics region, the Natural Heritage Trust --a Federal Government initiative launched in May 1997 with the aim of restoring Australia's environment and conserving the 'natural' environment--recently allocated $1 million in funding for a 'cultural heritage mapping project' in the Wet Tropics region. Already systematic research in the region has documented long-term Indigenous presence in, and utilisation of, rainforest resources (e.g. Cosgrove 1985; Cosgrove and Raymont 2002; Cosgrove, Field and Ferrier 2007; Horsfall 2002), and it is hoped that mapping the cultural values of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area will 'assist with the [WHL and National Heritage List] nomination of the [Wet Tropics World Heritage Area] for its cultural values' (WTMA Steering Committee 1998:10).


Interestingly, the majority of the WHL places described above were listed during the 1980s, coincident with the increased recognition of Indigenous rights and expansion of the cultural heritage movement in Australia (Aplin 2002; Pearson and Sullivan 1995). (1) As Byrne (1996) has argued, the motivations behind the nomination of these properties may well be interpreted from the viewpoint that it suited political interests of the time in creating a national identity. There are two levels to this construction: first, the idea that the recognition of deep antiquity for the occupation of Australia by Indigenous people gives the 'new' settler continent of Australia an authenticity that can compete with the Old World. But there is also a sense in which these places exemplify the notion of 'wilderness'--the arid, rugged and remote, where the antiquity of archaeological evidence can overshadow the lives of the contemporary Aboriginal communities that still live there--and this idea, like its counterpart in the United States (e.g. see Nash 1967; Stevens 1997; Stevenson 2006), can be used to legitimise the colonisation process. The recognition of both the presence and perceived absence of Indigenous people in the landscape becomes an uneasy problem for the moulding of a politically desired monolithic national identity.

From the above overview, it can be seen that inclusion on the WHL of places with a clearly demonstrated Indigenous presence and strong cultural heritage values has formed the basis for arguing for the right of Indigenous people to be included in the ongoing, day-to-day and high-level management of these properties. Even for other WHL places not listed explicitly for their cultural values, such as Fraser Island, but where cultural presence is well documented, Indigenous people were heavily involved in the management plan development and implementation process from the outset and remain so today (see McNiven 1994). With hindsight, the lack of a sustained program of archaeological research or cultural mapping in the Wet Tropics of Queensland prior to its nomination might be seen as a contributing factor in the privileging of 'natural' values in the nomination, and is clearly seen as an impediment to its appropriate management. The focus placed on the cultural landscape aspects of the Wet Tropics via the ongoing cultural mapping project reflects recent shifts in perspective on the relationship between 'natural' and 'cultural' values as seen in the changing legislative framework of environmental management in Australia. The recognition of cultural values can be argued to be a key factor in local Indigenous peoples gaining a substantial say in the management of all the aforementioned WHL places. Nevertheless, while Indigenous people are required to be 'involved' in management of internationally significant Ramsar wetlands, such provisions have rarely resulted in joint management arrangements similar to those adopted for WHL places.

Further, while such examples provide models for ways by which Indigenous cultural values and community participation can be better integrated within natural resource management programs, the 'ongoing, and large, discrepancy between natural and cultural heritage in the areas of resourcing and national policy' makes such realisations difficult to achieve (ASEC 2006:77). While there is a national scheme to identify, protect and provide assistance to manage natural heritage places (Caring For Our Country, $403 million in 2009-10), there are no long-term national funding programs of similar magnitude for Indigenous or historic heritage places (ASEC 2001:8). For example, in 2009-10 the national Indigenous Heritage Program had funding of only $3.3 million; 'Natural heritage values such as biodiversity are seen as more central to environmental management planning, and are therefore more likely to be investigated and understood than are cultural heritage values' (Johnston, C 2006:10). Hence, while Indigenous people are required legislatively to be 'involved' in management of internationally significant Ramsar wetlands and, while 'Indigenous knowledge is increasingly accepted as a valid and necessary information input to biodiversity management' (ASEC 2006:84), there are clearly still difficulties in reconciling the gap between natural and cultural heritage management practices, as demonstrated by the Ngarrindjeri Nation's attempts to have greater input in the management of the C&LML region.

The Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes and the Ngarrindjeri Nation

In terms of environment and history, the C&LML region is a vastly different kind of landscape from the World Heritage properties already described. The Coorong is a lagoon more than 100 kilometres long, separated from the Southern Ocean by a narrow sand dune peninsula. The Murray River, Australia's largest river system, exits to the sea through the lakes and numerous estuarine islands (including Hindmarsh Island). The current landscape has formed gradually since the early Holocene (Barnett 1994; Walker 2002). Water, from the river, lakes and sea, is just as significant a component of this landscape as is terra firma.

For the Ngarrindjeri, the water has very particular cultural values in addition to sustaining resources (such as reeds and rushes) required for their continuing cultural practice. As described in the Sea Country Plan (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006), the places where freshwater and saltwater meet and mix have a high significance. According to Ngarrindjeri oral tradition, it was at one of these places that Ngurunderi dismembered the giant Murray Cod Pondi, whose lashings widened the ancestral Murray stream and transformed it into the current river, creating saltwater and freshwater fish from the pieces (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:8). At these fluid junctions between the salt and the fresh, ngatis (totems) such as the ngori (pelican) breed (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:13); these Ngarrindjeri values about the mixing of the waters and the importance of the area as a breeding ground for different bird species relates directly to the same values for which the area has been declared a Ramsar wetland.

In the period following the arrival of Europeans to the area in 1836, the C&LML have been substantially impacted by human activities. Multiple phases of hydraulic engineering since 1940 have substantially altered the natural water flow regimes, causing the naturally estuarine Lakes Alexandrina and Albert to become permanent freshwater bodies (Bourman and Barnett 1995:101; MDBC 2005). In these places, freshwater and saltwater no longer meet and mix. More than 140 river regulation structures have been built upstream on the Murray River, leaving little water for flow downstream into the Lakes and Coorong, resulting in large salinity increases, as well as declines in biological productivity (Eccleston 2008; Geddes 1984; State Library of South Australia 2009). Marine and terrestrial faunal populations that relied on seasonal fluctuations in water availability have been almost completely altered, as have the local flora (Ganf 2002). The surrounding land is now predominantly used for agriculture, and most of the native vegetation has been cleared. The aforementioned lack of water flows through to the Coorong has a real effect on Ngarrindjeri ability to maintain cultural practices, such as the decline of particular reeds necessary for basket weaving. It is now doubtful whether this country, which once supported one of the highest-density Indigenous populations in Australia (Radcliffe-Brown 1918:230), with extensive deep shell mounds testifying to the abundance of resources and continuity of associations in the landscape, can now support the industries that rely on its water, let alone the cultural requirements of the Ngarrindjeri. The domestic, pastoral and industrial demand for freshwater has everywhere taken precedence over Indigenous uses of water, resulting in the current high and damaging level of soil salinity. The Ngarrindjeri approach, by contrast, places value on the balance of freshwater and saltwater.

Despite these massive impacts, in 1966 approximately 50 000 hectares of the Coorong were declared a National Park for conservation purposes. The Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar site was subsequently declared in 1985 in recognition of its importance as a breeding ground for many species of waterfowl and migratory birds, including a number that are rare, vulnerable or endangered (Paton 2000), including pelicans, a particularly culturally significant (totem) species.

In and around this iconic landscape made famous by the movie adaptation of Colin Thiele's book Storm Boy, Ngarrindjeri people still live locally, engaged in continuous negotiation with 'authorities' for the right to manage and protect their lands, waters, languages and heritage places (Hemming 1999, 2000; Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006); the often-cited 'Hindmarsh Island Affair' (see Bell 1998; Fergie 1996) is the most extreme example of their struggle. In theory there are various mechanisms by which the Ngarrindjeri can participate meaningfully in the local environmental management systems; in practice the multi-layered nature of the local regulatory system means this possibility is rarely realised. Management of the Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert area takes place within a complex regime of national, state and local legislation, with numerous non-Indigenous statutory management boards, councils and consultative committees, as well as independent Ngarrindjeri committees. A further complication is found in the fact that, as the outlet of the Murray-Darling River system, management of the Coorong and lakes is also intimately interwoven with that of the River Murray. The Ngarrindjeri have worked co-operatively with other Indigenous nations since 1999 through the Murray and Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) group to negotiate with the government over river management and Indigenous rights to water. One of the key concerns of MLDRIN is that, 'current catchment management practices are not considering the cultural knowledge of the Indigenous Nations' despite their willingness and desire to share Indigenous knowledge to facilitate more effective management (Morgan, Strelein and Weir 2004:9).

There are three main state Acts of relevance to the management of cultural heritage in the C&LML area: the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (SA), the Natural Resources Management Act 2004 (SA) and the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (SA). Adding to this complexity, the federal Native Title Act 1993 also applies (as a native title claim has been lodged over the area by the Ngarrindjeri), in addition to the EPBC Act and the River Murray Act 2003 (SA). The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 provides notional protection to all places of Indigenous cultural significance in the State, regardless of land tenure status. However, in reality it is largely ineffectual, affording Indigenous people little real power in management processes (Wiltshire and Wallis 2008). The Act establishes a State Aboriginal Heritage Committee charged with making decisions about heritage places and objects, comprised entirely of Aboriginal people from throughout the State appointed by the Minister, though there are no statutory criteria for nomination or selection. Unfortunately, despite its full Aboriginal membership, the Committee functions in an advisory capacity only and the Minister is not bound to follow its recommendations regarding heritage protection; often heritage falls by the wayside as more powerful economic arguments are invoked. As the hundreds of culturally significant places in the Coorong have not yet been recognised as being of outstanding significance on either the World Heritage or National Heritage lists, legislatively there is little recourse for further heeding of Ngarrindjeri voices on heritage grounds.

Under the Natural Resource Management Act 2004, the River Murray Catchments Water Management Board is an integral part of the management structure related to the Murray Darling Basin of which the Coorong and lakes area is a part. The Board's main role is to ensure the health of the Murray within South Australia and it comprises eight Minister-appointed members and a Chair; there is only one Indigenous representative on this Board. The National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 established the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Council, which consists of eight appointed members; none of the Council members are Indigenous. While the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (currently situated within the State Department of Environment and Heritage) did begin developing policies and processes to accommodate Indigenous involvement in park management as early as the 1980s in keeping with the terms of the Act (Smyth 2001), these have been largely insufficient. While there are provisions for the Minister to enter into a co-management agreement with Indigenous peoples, and for the establishment of a Co-Management Board, to date these possibilities have not been realised.

The main planning document that governs management of the Coorong National Park (hereafter CNP) is the CNP Management Plan (National Parks and Wildlife Service 1990). The CNP Management Plan states under Objective 3.1 that it will be managed in accordance with the Articles of the Ramsar Convention, meaning it must theoretically both include and involve local Indigenous people. Throughout the management plan there is reference to 'continued' and 'closer' liaison and consultation with the Ngarrindjeri community, and the 'promotion of greater Aboriginal involvement in reserve management programs' (National Parks and Wildlife Service 1990). In other jurisdictions such as New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, 'greater involvement' is interpreted proactively through strategies such as the appointment of Indigenous Boards of Management to guide decision making, and/or development of specialist 'cultural heritage' ranger positions whose responsibilities and activities are different to those of 'standard' rangers. Within the CNP, 'greater involvement' is largely equated to employment of a small number of Ngarrindjeri people in standard ranger positions; the majority of their activities are determined by park management rather than guided by community aspirations (see Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006) and appear no different to the activities undertaken by non-Indigenous rangers. To our knowledge there is only one Ngarrindjeri ranger in a more senior position, though even he appears to have limited opportunities to substantively influence decision making and policy implementation. While these are good starting points, clearly much more is possible and would be in keeping with the spirit of the management plan.

Another important planning document in the region is the Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert Ramsar Management Plan (DEH 2000). Like the CNP Management Plan, the Ramsar Management Plan emphasises community consultation, transparency and involvement of all relevant government agencies and has led to the development of the Community Reference Group, which has 29 members, of whom just one is a Ngarrindjeri representative, with the rest being other local, non-Indigenous community representatives. In a positive development for the integration of cultural and natural heritage management in the Ramsar area, the Ngarrindjeri Ramsar Working Group was formed, producing a summary paper in 1997 outlining key recommendations, goals and objectives related to Ngarrindjeri cultural values. The final Ramsar Management Plan did not always reflect the views and goals of Ngarrindjeri people, with the Ngarrindjeri Ramsar Working Group summary paper failing to even be included as an appendix in the final plan, much to Ngarrindjeri disappointment (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:43).

Despite the rhetoric apparent in both planning documents about greater Indigenous engagement and concern for cultural heritage, as well as natural heritage, the Ngarrindjeri point out that:

We acknowledge that the objectives of protected area management have much in common with our own intentions for Caring for Country, and that we are now consulted in some aspects of managing some protected areas. However, none of the existing protected areas on Ngarrindjeri Country were established with our consent and the management arrangements in place do not adequately reflect our rights and obligations to Country ... Management plans of protected areas tend to focus almost exclusively on their biodiversity values and some archaeological values, with little or no recognition that animals, plants, landscapes and seascapes also possess cultural values which are vitally important to Ngarrindjeri people and which must be taken into account in protected area management (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:22, our emphasis).

Both plans mentioned above are already under or are about to commence a review process.

In the meantime, by necessity the Ngarrindjeri community finds alternative mechanisms through which to try to ensure cultural heritage values are identified and accommodated in local environmental planning and management processes. One such mechanism is through the execution of Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan (Listen to Ngarrindjeri People Talking) Agreements between the Ngarrindjeri Nation and external parties such as local councils (e.g. Alexandrina Council; see Hemming and Trevorrow 2005). These legally binding agreements formally recognise the Ngarrindjeri people as Traditional Owners of their lands and waters, providing an alternative route through which their concerns about heritage can be voiced (Hemming and Trevorrow 2005). The Ngarrindjeri have also produced a management plan of their own: the Ngarrindjeri Nation Yarluwar-Ruwe Plan ('Caring for Ngarrindjeri Sea Country and Culture' (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006)). This independent document explains significant Ngarrindjeri cultural values and relationships to water, bird life and marine life, and outlines the 'issues, objectives, strategies and priority actions that we [i.e. the Ngarrindjeri] intend to address to realise our vision for the future of our Sea Country' (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:7). As expressed in this plan, the community desires ownership and management either through the Uluru-Kata Tjuta model of management, or as an Indigenous Protected Area: (2)

Our prime objective is to secure the appropriate recognition of our rights, interests and values in all matters relating to the establishment and management of protected areas within our Country. Such recognition includes ... hand-back of all existing and future protected areas on our Country (a priority is the hand-back of the Coorong National Park) with agreements setting the terms of future management (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006:23).

Another key initiative of the Ngarrindjeri has been the establishment of the Ngarrindjeri Regional Authority as a peak co-ordinating and implementation body. In July 2008 the Authority signed the Ngarrindjeri Regional Partnership Agreement with the Australian and South Australian governments (Agreements, Treaties and Negotiated Settlements Project 2008). Among other elements, this agreement allows for the establishment of a Sea Rangers Program and proposes that an Indigenous Protected Area will be created in Ngarrindjeri lands.

Integrating natural and cultural values in the management of Indigenous landscapes

Insufficient time has yet passed to determine if innovative initiatives such as the Ngarrindjeri Nation Yarluwar-Ruwe Plan, Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan agreements and the Ngarrindjeri Regional Partnership Agreement, which seek alternative paths to complicated legislative framework, will provide feasible mechanisms by which Ngarrindjeri can influence and improve management decisions. However, the longevity of Ngarrindjeri presence in the C&LML area is testimony to the suggestion of Berkes (2009:153) that through their collective knowledge Indigenous Elders can 'teach what to look for and how to look for what is important'. For thousands of years the Ngarrindjeri observed, interacted with and managed their ruwe, the waters of which are seen as central to their cultural survival. Since 1836 the area has increasingly come under 'Western' management strategies to the exclusion of Indigenous knowledge, marginalising the Ngarrindjeri and making it extremely difficult for them to care for ruwe in culturally appropriate and effective ways (Ngarrindjeri Tendi et al. 2006). That the River Murray system, Coorong and Lakes Alexandrina and Albert are now in crisis (MDBA 2009a) speaks volumes about the adequacy of the non-Indigenous management regime and the potential gains that might be realised in adopting a different, Indigenous approach. While statutory authorities have attempted to put into place a 'collective' management process, diverging government interests and understandings of 'management' and the 'environment' continue to dominate management processes, with little real acknowledgment or integration of Ngarrindjeri knowledge or cultural values.

The Ngarrindjeri case study demonstrates the incapacity of relevant local, state and federal legislation to always incorporate Indigenous perspectives on environmental management in a fashion that is truly inclusive, and which recognises the benefits of Indigenous knowledge in supporting the aims of sustainability. Recent Ngarrindjeri initiatives are positive attempts to provide alternative approaches to side-step the complicated legislative framework and gain traction. Despite such initiatives, the failure to integrate the Ngarrindjeri as legitimate stakeholders continues to pervade the space; for example, while a Long-Term Plan Reference Group was formed in February 2009 through the Murray Futures Lower Lakes & Coorong Recovery Project, the official State Government website on the Murray Futures fails to list the Ngarrindjeri as distinct members of the Reference Group (DEH 2009a), although elsewhere the same site does note that the Project Team will work with 'Ngarrindjeri liaison', though without explicitly stating the process through which this will be achieved (DEH 2009b).

The co-management of WHL places occurring elsewhere in Australia makes it clear that joint management initiatives and increased focus on Indigenous heritage values and concerns within natural heritage management regimes and legislative frameworks can be successfully achieved. However, despite significant shifts in perspective by some management authorities in recent decades, it is clear that the relationship between natural and cultural processes in the Australian landscape is still largely unarticulated. As Rainforest Aboriginal groups have noted with regard to the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area, 'the protection of cultural values appears to be secondary to natural values protection' (WTMA Steering Committee 1998:xx). As a recent State of the Environment report noted, 'This imbalance presents a barrier to our management and appreciation of heritage in an integrated way' (ASEC 2001:107).

McNiven and Russell (1995:514) have argued that 'environmental management must be based on a sound understanding of how Aboriginal people used and managed...areas and how such actions may have changed over thousands of years'. They maintain that many places within Australia recognised for their natural values should be managed as cultural landscapes (i.e. 'the product of long-term Aboriginal use and management'), since this approach 'both acknowledges the role of Aboriginal people in the creation of the Australian landscape and legitimises their association with that landscape which Europeans have denied for over 200 years' (McNiven and Russell 1995:516). The sustainability of Indigenous land management is self-evident in the very survival of people here for thousands of years without witnessing ecological disasters of kinds seen elsewhere (cf. Diamond 2005).

When, in 1992, the World Heritage Convention instituted the category of cultural landscapes, it was partly with the aim of protecting 'living traditional cultures'. In Australia, a highly industrialised colonial, 'settler' nation, proving one's existence as a 'living traditional culture' is by no means straightforward. In the more densely populated region of south-eastern Australia opportunities for Indigenous involvement in land management and ownership have tended to be more restricted than elsewhere, since the majority of land is held by private rather than government interests. Furthermore, there is a tendency for non-Indigenous Australians to inaccurately consider Indigenous peoples of the south-east as having lost their connection to country. As has been noted by Baker, Davies and Young (2001:8), in the south-east 'much of what they ]Indigenous Australians] have achieved in management of their country, or are likely to achieve in the future, involves compromise between their own rights and interests in land and resources and powerful competing interests'. For the Ngarrindjeri, whose ruwe is the source of potable water for the city of Adelaide and the foundation of agricultural industries on the Lower Murray and lakes, such competing interests mitigate against their equal participation in management decisions. Furthermore, to date, Ngarrindjeri aspirations for greater participation have not translated into active representation on the various existing boards and committees.

Despite extensive management regimes established through a raft of legislation, the Coorong and Lower Murray Lakes Ramsar area is widely perceived by the general public and the Ngarrindjeri as having been mismanaged, a situation exacerbated by the separation of cultural and natural heritage values, and further complicated by the separation of water management. As is apparent in the Ngarrindjeri example, cognisance is required that existing and proposed management structures that preserve perceived natural values may impact negatively on the capacity of Indigenous people to pursue their cultural practices. As discussed by Aldersey (2002), the failings of the South Australian State Government to meet its obligations under the Ramsar Convention are caused by a range of factors, including a lack of political will, insufficient resourcing and the low priority of the Convention. Historically, the convoluted management framework can be argued to have disenfranchised Ngarrindjeri people. However, it will not suffice for other authorities to simply acknowledge the importance and primacy of Ngarrindjeri knowledge to effect improved management: there need to be active mechanisms to integrate it, crossing the old boundaries of natural and cultural in a way that is both sensitive and effective. The environmental crisis in the C&LML in recent years and growing public pressure has resulted in renewed political will with regard to the management of this area and additional resourcing. It is hoped that recent initiatives will allow a more fruitful engagement with the Ngarrindjeri people from the outset, bringing them fully into the decisionmaking process at this critical time and paying heed to their cultural concerns and the need for integrated management; after all, Ngarrindjeri knowledge derives from a far longer timeframe than any scientific studies completed in the area. In the C&LML, saltwater and freshwater are contested categories where the tensions between 'natural' and 'cultural' heritage management are played out. Providing meaningful contexts for Indigenous knowledge to be applied in this arena has the potential to narrow the gap.


While aspects of this paper have been discussed with various Ngarrindjeri people, this paper should not be seen as necessarily reflecting the viewpoints of the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee. A gracious thank you to the Ngarrindjeri people who have granted permission for us to work on their ruwe over recent years and who have passionately explained to us the need for improved management and protection policies, and shared with us explanations of some of the ways they are trying to effect such changes. Thanks also to Steve Hemming, who introduced the authors to members of the Ngarrindjeri community. Ngarrindjeri archaeologist Chris Wilson contributed to earlier versions of this paper, and we thank him for his insight. Kieron Amphlett prepared the illustration. Finally, thank you to the numerous colleagues and the two anonymous referees who read through various iterations of this paper; as always, any mistakes or misrepresentations are the responsibility of the authors.


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Lynley A Wallis

Aboriginal Environments Research Centre, The University of Queensland

Alice C Gorman

Department of Archaeology, Flinders University


(1.) It is worth noting that since the right-wing coalition government under Prime Minister John Howard came to power in 1996, there have been no further places with Indigenous cultural values nominated to the WHL; instead, the focus has been on places of non-Indigenous value such as the Sydney Opera House and the group nomination of 11 historic convict sites.

(2.) The Indigenous Protected Area category of protected lands is a new development, only being established in 2000; by November 2009 there were 33 such properties covering more than 23 million hectares in Australia. Indigenous Protected Area agreements rely 'upon the Indigenous community self-declaring their interests in managing land, rather than conservation agencies "allowing" Aboriginal participation in land management' (Muller 2003: 34).

Lynley Wallis is a Senior Research Fellow in the Aboriginal Environments Research Centre at The University of Queensland. She is an archaeologist with more than 15 years experience working throughout Australia. She is particularly interested in the relationships between people and environment, and has spent the past five years working collaboratively with the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee carrying out research and helping improve management of places.


Alice Gorman is a Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University, where she currently teaches cultural heritage management at undergraduate and graduate level. She has worked as a consultant with Aboriginal communities in New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland.

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Author:Wallis, Lynley A.; Gorman, Alice C.
Publication:Australian Aboriginal Studies
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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